“Moral Monday” demonstrators at the General Assembly bring a wide range of grievances. They charge the legislature’s Republican majorities with failing to uphold the interests of North Carolinians who count on robust public education programs as paths out of poverty and doorways to success. They say poor people’s health care needs are being neglected. They decry what they see as methodical efforts to suppress the votes of African-Americans and others who tend to side with Democrats. They criticize a perceived legislative indifference to racial discrimination in the justice system.
It’s fair to say they’re not imagining things. No wonder the demonstrations have struck such a chord, with dozens committing peaceable civil disobedience and submitting to arrest to highlight their concerns.
These are the kinds of concerns that loom large among those of us aligned with the N.C. Council of Churches’ emphasis on social and economic justice. Especially in the interlocking areas of spending and tax policies, the signs are not good. But if there’s a hopeful perspective, it’s that many big decisions have yet to be made. There’s time to work out compromises that could limit the damage – for example, in avoiding a reinstatement of state sales taxes on food and prescription drugs.
The state Senate’s proposed budget forgoes $770 million in spending over the next two years to allow for cuts in personal and corporate income taxes. Senate leaders’ thinking has been that meanwhile, the state sales tax rate would be increased and the tax would be extended to cover a broad spectrum of services, as well as purchases of food and medicine.
The tax cuts are intended to make North Carolina more competitive in attracting businesses and jobs. But in squeezing the spending side of the budget, they would be self-defeating in terms of raising the money to address companies’ needs for well-educated employees, healthy communities and a clean environment. People at the upper end of the income scale would see taxes fall, but higher sales taxes would be hard on the less well-off. An alternate tax plan offered by Senate Democrats with some Republican support also would help update the tax system without being so skewed in its impact on the poor.
On the House side, the leadership has successfully backed a third plan, House Bill 998, tentatively approved June 7 along party lines. The plan would cut personal and corporate income taxes and extend the sales tax, but not to food and medicine. Gov. Pat McCrory has signaled his support.
Sponsors tout the bill as modernizing the state’s tax system to reflect the shift toward a services-oriented economy and as offering income tax relief, which they say would help energize the state’s economy. But in House debate, what also became clear was that the plan offers generous breaks for the wealthiest taxpayers while those just scraping by would see minimal breaks at best. Overall, the tax burden relative to people’s incomes would shift away from the top and toward the bottom.
That raises a profound question of fairness. At the same time, the House approach would mean a revenue loss to the state pegged at $302 million over the next two years. That’s the kind of choice that could end up depriving the state of revenue it needs to keep its public school classrooms adequately staffed, to properly fund community colleges, to keep university tuitions from continuing their rapid rise. A budget not so starved for revenue also could do more to address woeful shortcomings in the state’s mental health system, just to pick one area where services important to thousands of vulnerable people need more support.
When it comes to the implications for state services across the board – services that are essential if North Carolina is to do right by all of its residents, no matter where they stand on the economic ladder – the Moral Monday demonstrators know the score. For good reason, they also see a callous indifference toward the racial prejudice that can infect the criminal justice system. That indifference was on display with the General Assembly’s move to repeal the final vestiges of the Racial Justice Act, a law meant to guard against the possibility that race discrimination would be a factor in sentencing someone to death.
Following in the Senate’s footsteps, the House on June 5 agreed to scrap the law, which last year already had been significantly narrowed. Sponsors declared their desire to see executions resume for the first time since 2006. Yes, most criminals on Death Row have done terrible things to innocent people. But making it easier for someone to show any racial bias in sentencing, and thereby have his punishment converted to life in prison without parole, has made for a fairer system. The repeal is unnecessary, vindictive and – as Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville eloquently pointed out – blind to the realities of race discrimination that have yet to be purged from our society and our courts.
The Republicans who control both House and Senate claim to be paying little heed to the protests they’ve sparked. One reason, no doubt, is that they’ve set the boundaries of legislative districts so as to make many GOP lawmakers virtually immune from challenges at the polls. A special panel of judges is hearing a suit brought by civil rights groups and Democrats who claim that the redistricting process following the 2010 census targeted African-Americans in ways that illegally devalue their votes.
A high-profile consultant who helped engineer the new districts, Tom Hofeller, testified that yes, districts were drawn to boost Republican chances. That’s unfortunately par for the course, whichever party is in power. The issue is whether black voters’ rights were abused when they were packed into congressional and legislative districts with the intent of making adjacent districts more conservative. What resulted were districts with grotesque shapes, cutting across county and even precinct lines. From the Republican standpoint, they got the job done, helping the party cement its control.
Coupled with the party’s efforts to hold down the number of Democratic-leaning voters by curtailing early voting and requiring photo IDs, the redistricting strategy runs counter to the small-d democratic principles of maximum participation and transparency. People of good will, no matter their party alignment, should want to see those principles affirmed.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate